EAJS Conference Grant Programme 2019/20
Ancient and Medieval Religious Homelands: An Interdisciplinary Conference on Space, Place, and Religion
8–10 November 2021
Three-day international conference organized by the University of Vienna in cooperation with the University of Utrecht, 8–10 November 202, sponsored by the European Association for Jewish Studies (EAJS) Conference Grant Programme in European Jewish Studies.
Co-conveners: Constanza Cordoni (Institute for Medieval Research, Austrian Academy of the Sciences; Department of Jewish Studies, University of Vienna); Leonard V. Rutgers (Department of History and Art History, University of Utrecht); Gerhard Langer (Department of Jewish Studies, University of Vienna)
We convened a conference to discuss across disciplines the question of whether and how Judaism and other religious traditions have conceptualized a region variously referred to as the Land of Israel, the Holy Land, Palaestina, or even the blessed land. We looked at this issue from the perspective of homeland, as defined in pre-modern contexts, particularly in diasporic settings. In modern parlance homelands are usually associated or synonymous with nation states, that is, with spaces located in place and time and protected by international law. They usually have clearly delineated boundaries that people oftentimes feel called upon to defend. Modern-day homelands tend to be rooted in history, or rather in views about what a given homeland looked like in the past, homeland myths. These historical roots were precisely what our conference explored: we wanted to find out how the notion of homeland came about, and how it had been used in some of the religious traditions that consider the Land of Israel to be the ultimate homeland.
To accomplish this we invited scholars of philosophy, religious studies, Biblical studies, Jewish studies, New Testament and Early Christian studies, Islam studies, Samaritan studies and affiliated with institutions in Europe, Israel, the United States, and Australia. They contributed with presentations that enhanced our knowledge about the concept of homeland, bringing different historical perspectives to the table, and using a wide array of literary and documentary sources in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, Latin, as well as iconographic material to argue their case. The meeting would originally have taken place in Vienna, but due to the pandemic we decided to hold it online. The co-conveners chaired three of the sections and we counted with the support of the following colleagues for the three other ones: Prof. Catherine Hezser (SOAS), Prof. Michael L. Miller (Central European University), Prof. Rüdiger Lohlker (Department of Oriental Studies, University of Vienna).
Through a carefully selected set of case-studies we discovered that past thinking about homelands was quite different from how we conceive of that notion today. We discovered that flexibility and malleability tended to be the norm. We discovered that homelands are neither born nor descend from heaven. Rather they are man-made and, as such, exist above all in the eye of the beholder. In the past homelands could be real places. However, much of what past people said about their homeland was imagined, in such a way that the distinction between actual place and dreamt reality tended to be rather fluid. All of this has obvious implications for how people talk about the notion of homeland today. We learned much from one another in terms of the mechanisms at play, which turned out to be quite similar across the different religious traditions. Because of that, there arose a sense of solidarity, as it were, regarding the realization that much of what is said about homelands is the result of human needs and ingenuity in ways that are not really all that different from one religious tradition to the next.
The conference’s long durée approach and interdisciplinary character provided a foundation for further research on the meaning of place in general and large-scale places in particular for religious communities.
Day 1: Monday 8th November
The co-convenors Constanza Cordoni, Leonard V. Rutgers and Gerhard Langer welcomed speakers and audience and gave a brief introduction on the topic of the conference: the examination of the notion of homeland, mostly in the pre-modern era.
Jeff Malpas (University of Tasmania, Australia) opened the conference with a keynote lecture entitled “Next year in Jerusalem”: Homeland and the orienting of the world in which he reflected on the orientation that characterises the way the world is ordered around one collectively significant place and landscape, a homeland, which is neither ancient, nor medieval, nor particularly Jewish, but which L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim powerfully expresses. What makes the homeland so meaningful not just in a religious context? In better understanding the idea itself, Malpas argues that we can also better understand its more specific historical and cultural instantiations. After such an exploration of the theoretical and linguistic underpinnings of the notion of homeland, the first paper concerned with historical instantiations was given by Katell Berthelot (University of Aix-Marseille, CNRS), Is Judea Homeland? Is Judea Homeland? The Notion of Patris in the Writings of Philo and Josephus. She explained how Jewish writers of the Second Temple period could have a double orientation towards a homeland or rather home-city (Alexandria) and a holy city (Jerusalem) which was in turn the home-city of fellow Jews, thus for example in the case of Josephus or Agrippa I. Jacobus Cornelis de Vos (University of Münster) presented a different kind the homeland orientation with his talk on the Land in the New Testament: An Example from Hebrews 12. The homeland of Christians is not on earth, a notion not exclusive to the Epistle to the Hebrews, but transcendent. Even though they are urged to run to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, their homeland is their faith, which includes the spatial notion of a heavenly Jerusalem. The later Christian sources discussed by Katharina Heyden (University of Bern) in her lecture Palestine a Religious Homeland for Western Christians? explored the way women of Western ascetic circles shaped through their lives and letters Palestine as religious homeland, as place where a perfect way of life was possible as preparation in this world for a transcendent realm. Agnethe Siquans (University of Vienna) read for us patristic interpretations of the relation of Moses to the land which he longs for but does not get to enter, and which his successor Joshua ben Nun conquers and allots to the tribes. In her talk Moses’ Land? Evidence of Patristic Literature she showed how the Church Fathers read Moses and Joshua typologically: Moses failing and dying without the land, and Joshua succeeding in entering and bringing the people to the land promised to the patriarchs. Ultimately, the land turns to be an allegory for the Christian faith.
A series of papers on rabbinic literature followed which further evidenced that homelands are not fixed in time and space. David Kraemer (Jewish Theological Seminary, New York) discussed in Competing Jewish Homelands: Babylon and the Land of Israel in Rabbinic Discourse a number of passages of the Babylonian Talmud to show how the Babylonian rabbis challenged the ascendency of the Land of Israel in the “here and now” and argued that it is only logical for them to call Babylonia their homeland because it is the place where Torah is not forgotten.
Day 2: Tuesday 9th November
On the second day we continued in the morning with contributions on rabbinic conceptualisations of the homeland. In Mother, Stepmother, and Symbolic Violence: Land of Israel and Babylonia in Rabbinic Traditions, Reuven Kiperwasser (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) elaborated on mother and stepmother metaphors with which the sages of the Babylonian Talmud articulated their attitudes towards the Land of Israel and Babylonia. This presentation was followed by a debate on the gendering of homelands. Eyal Ben-Eliyahu (University of Haifa) addressed in his talk on The dynamic nature of the borders of the Land of Israel in the rabbinic Literature the notion that the boundaries of the Land of Israel had an ostensibly dynamic character and were the result of interpretation insofar as they were in the hands of the sages of later Roman Palestine. The discourse of the sages expanded the territory of the Land, purifying areas from their “gentile impurity”, or reduced it according to demographic shifts. Constanza Cordoni (Austrian Academy of the Sciences/University of Vienna) explored in The land of the future and the future of the homeland avenues along which the sages of late antiquity imagined the future homeland of the prototypical diaspora, reshaping scriptural ideas of the land and the land lost as national territory. Specifically, she discussed the land as eschatological place of resurrection and plenty. A further diasporic locale was illuminated by Ortal-Paz Saar (University of Utrecht) in a talk with a focus on inscriptional material primarily from early medieval Italy: Symbols of Identity and Yearning: The Temple in Jewish Funerary Inscriptions. She could show how symbolical representations of the Temple in Jewish funerary contexts render it the Jewish eschatological point of orientation par excellence. The afternoon section, whose speakers all three collaborated in the Utrecht based project Reconfiguring Diaspora directed by Leonard V. Rutgers, came to a close with a presentation by Susanna Wolfert-De Vries (University of Utrecht), Holy land or holy people? The conceptualization of religious belonging in the late antique Jewish diaspora in Egypt. Reading material transmitted in papyri as evidence of thriving Jewish communities in late ancient Egypt, Wolfert-De Vries could argue for a shift of notions of belonging associated with a homeland. Rather than a territory in Palestine it is the very diasporic community that appears to be the main referent of the Jews of Egypt behind these sources.
Day 3: Wednesday 10th November
The third and last day of the conference was dedicated to further cultural traditions, some of which added political perspectives to the discussion. Suleiman Mourad (Smith College, Massachusetts) in The Muslims’ Holy Land (al-Ard al-Muqaddasa): The Invention of New Memories and Conceptualisations and Milka Levy-Rubin (The Schechter Institute, Jerusalem) with Becoming a Homeland to Muslims: The Sanctification of Palestine in the First Centuries – The Case of Samaria presented complementary papers on the way Muslims made of Jerusalem and Samaria religious homelands. It emerged from these papers that Muslim thinkers would not always agree on what the actual borders of the Holy Land were and that the making of a religious homeland could be a top-down process, as in the case of Jerusalem, but also a bottom-up one, as in the case of the territory of Nablus. In her talk on The land of Filastin and the Jewish diaspora in the eyes of Arab Christians (750–1000), Barbara Roggema (University of Bochum) illuminated a strand of thought seldom considered in broad discussions of the early Muslim period. She showed how Christians in the Middle East were not only concerned in their writings with polemicizing with Muslims but also with Jews, who – so the argument of selected texts of Christian Arabic treatises – would remain in exile never to return to the Holy Land.
A last medieval approach to the homeland was that given by Meira Polliack (Tel Aviv University) in a lecture on Karaite traditions, Historicizing the Land of the Bible in Medieval Karaite Discourse, which showed how Karaites in their formative period reinstated Scripture as corner stone of the Jewish religion and the Land as the place of Scripture. Two lectures moved beyond the boundaries of pre-modernity: Monika Schreiber (University of Vienna) illuminated with her paper on Samaritan Zionism the little-known type of place attachment represented by the Samaritans, a biblical tradition which does not have a focus on Mount Zion, but on Mount Gerizim instead, rarely in the course of its history looked at its original homeland from afar, and voluntarily adopted Zionism, thus choosing a form of small-scale diaspora existence in Israel. Yuval Katz Wilfing (University of Vienna) dealt in Between Homelands – Bukharan Jews in Vienna with the history, wanderings and homeland makings of Bukharan Jews, a thriving diasporic community in Vienna which considers both Bukhara and Israel as homelands, in the 19th and 20th centuries.
We learned that flexibility, ambiguity and polyphony defined the plurality of notions of homeland in the pre-modern era and that that there are echoes of this plurality in modern times, even if this is not the case in mainstream secular modern ideas about the homeland. Such conclusions could have an impact on modern discussions on borders and boundaries of a given homeland that purport to make use of historical evidence. If homelands were flexible and even portable once, if people in the past could be loyal to more than one homeland, modern debates should take this into account. The nuance we find in pre-modern sources when they conceptualized the homeland may teach us the need to nuance our talk about this notion today.
Outcomes and Outputs
We plan to publish a volume with essays based on the talks given during the conference. The participants’ work-in-progress papers will form the basis of 8,000-10,000-word chapters which will be collected in a volume. Publication venue is still under discussion.
One of the co-convenors, Constanza Cordoni, plans to organize a follow-up workshop in the framework of her research project on the Land of Israel in the Geonic Period.
The conference was announced on various platforms: The homepage of the EAJS, of the University of Vienna, the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, H-Judaic.
Event homepage: https://homeland-tagung.univie.ac.at/home/
The talks were recorded in full and are made available on demand.
8 November 2021
10.45-11.00 Opening remarks
- Langer (Univ. Vienna)/ L. Rutgers (Univ. Utrecht)/C. Cordoni (ÖAW/Univ. Vienna)
11.00-12.30 Human Geography; Early Jewish and Christian Perspectives
Chair: C. Cordoni (ÖAW)
- Malpas (Univ. of Tasmania, Australia): “Next year in Jerusalem”: Homeland and the orienting of the world
- Berthelot (Univ. Aix-Marseille, CNRS): Is Judea Homeland? The Notion of Patris in the Writings of Philo and Josephus
- C. de Vos (Univ. Münster):Land in the New Testament: An Example from Hebrews 12
12.30-14:00 Lunch break
14.00-15.30 Early Christian and Rabbinic Perspectives
Chair: G. Langer (Univ. Vienna)
- Heyden (Univ. Bern): Palestine a Religious Homeland for Western Christians?
- Siquans (Univ. Vienna): Moses’ Land: Evidence of Patristic Literature
- Kraemer (Jewish Theological Seminary, New York): Competing Jewish Homelands: Babylon and the Land of Israel in Rabbinic Discourse
9 November 2021
11.00-12.00 Rabbinic Perspectives
Chair: C. Hezser (SOAS)
- Ben-Eliyahu (Univ. Haifa): The Dynamic Nature of the Borders of the Land of Israel in Rabbinic Literature
- Kiperwasser (Hebrew Univ.): Mother, Stepmother, and Symbolic Violence: Land of Israel and Babylonia in Rabbinic Traditions
12.00-14.00 Lunch break
14.00-15.30 Epigraphic, Liturgical and Quasi-Rabbinic Perspectives
Chair: L. V. Rutgers (Univ. Utrecht)
O.-P. Saar (Univ. Utrecht): Symbols of Identity and Yearning: The Temple in Jewish Funerary Inscriptions
- Cordoni (ÖAW/Univ. Vienna): The Land of the future and the future of the homeland
- Wolfert-De Vries (Univ. Utrecht): Holy land or holy people? The conceptualization of religious belonging in the late antique Jewish diaspora in Egypt
10 November 2021
11.00-12.30 Other Jewish and Samaritan Perspectives
Chair: M. L. Miller (CEU)
- Levy-Rubin (The Schechter Institute): Becoming a homeland to Muslims: The sanctification of Palestine in the first centuries of Islam: The case of Samaria
- Schreiber (Univ. Vienna): Samaritan Zionism
- Katz Wilfing (Univ. Vienna): Between Homelands – Bukharan Jews in Vienna
12.30-14.00 Lunch break
14.00-15.30 Arab Christian, Muslim and Karaite Perspectives
Chair: R. Lohlker (Univ. Vienna)
- Roggema (Univ. Bochum): The land of Filastin and the Jewish diaspora in the eyes of Arab Christians (750–1000)
- A. Mourad (Smith College, MA): The Muslims’ Holy Land (al-Ard al-Muqaddasa): The Invention of New Memories and Conceptualizations
- Polliack (Tel Aviv Univ.): Historicizing the Land of the Bible in Medieval Karaite Discourse
15.30-15.45 Closing remarks
- Langer (Univ. Vienna)/ L. Rutgers (Univ. Utrecht)/C. Cordoni (ÖAW/Univ. Vienna)